The round of 32 provided fans with two days full of upsets and wild finishes. Seeds one through four have already been eliminated in the South region. The defending champs, North Carolina, were beaten by 20 against a 7 seed. Syracuse has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen once again as a play-in team. America’s favorite 16 seed, UMBC, has been sent home. However, America’s favorite sister (Jean) rolls on after her Loyola-Chicago Ramblers beat the odds once again. Add in a Michigan buzzer beater, and you have the makings of potentially the craziest 2nd round in tournament history. If the Sweet Sixteen contains half that much drama, it will make for another incredible round. On day one, there will be four very different games that could go either way. All four games contain teams who beat the odds to be there and will hope to continue that trend into the Elite Eight.
7 Nevada v 11 Loyola-Chicago
This is a game with probably more storylines than any other Sweet Sixteen match-up. Nevada is led by twin brothers, Caleb and Cody Martin. They had to erase a 12 point deficit to beat Texas in round one. Then the Wolfpack followed up that effort with a 22 point comeback against 2 seed Cincinnati. With Loyola, you have a team who has needed end of game heroics in rounds one and two in order to advance. Add that to media darling and Loyola-Chicago superfan Sister Jean and you have a storybook Cinderella meeting in the Sweet Sixteen.
Once this one tips off, expect Nevada to employ a heavy dose of the 6’7 Martin twins. Caleb and Cody account for 32 of their team’s impressive 83 points per game. Along with the Martins are 6’7 guard Jordan Caroline who averages 17 points per game and 6’6 guard Kendall Stephens averaging 13 points per game. Defensively, they do an excellent job defending the three-point line. However, as a team lacking any players 6’9 or taller, Nevada is susceptible to getting beat in the paint.
Loyola-Chicago will look to exploit Nevada’s interior defense with 6’9 Missouri Valley freshman of the year, Cameron Krutwig. Krutwig is joined by MVC player of the year Clayton Custer. The 6’1 Custer is an excellent three-point shooter, connecting on 46% of his attempts this season. His matchup against Nevada’s much taller guards will be key for the Ramblers success. In addition to their stars, the Ramblers possess a smothering defense. On the season, they have held opponents to just 62 points per game. The potential deciding factor will be which team can control the tempo of this game. In the end, one Cinderella story will end, but the other will keep dancing into the Elite Eight.
3 Michigan v 7 Texas A&M
What a contrast in how these teams got out of the round of 32. Texas A&M absolutely obliterated the reigning champion North Carolina Tar Heels. The Aggies rolled to an unexpectedly dominant 86-65 victory. On the other hand, it took the Wolverines to the final buzzer. Michigan’s Jordan Poole had his “One Shining Moment” as he knocked down a deep three as time expired. The miraculous shot put Michigan ahead and into the next round with a 64-63 victory.
Texas A&M has a style, and it has gotten them this far. They have one of the best frontcourts in the country who they go to early and often. Big men Tyler Davis and Robert Williams might be playing in 2018, but they refuse to conform to 2018 post player norms. The duo’s range does not usually take them more than 12 feet from the basket; however, they still manage to be focal points of A&M’s offense. Combine them with 6’8 stretch forward DJ Hogg and the Aggies also have one of the nation’s best rebounding squads. However, in the big win over North Carolina, a guard led the charge. Freshman TJ Starks had one of his best games of the season scoring 21 points and dishing out 5 assists. If Texas A&M wants to advance they will have to get more contributions like this from players outside of Williams and Davis.
Michigan is also led by a big man of their own: 6’10 forward Moritz Wagner. Unlike Davis and Williams, Wagner is much more perimeter oriented. The German forward averages 4 attempts from 3 per game and makes 40% of those shots. The Wolverines have struggled thus far in the tournament, but their key to victory rests at the three-point line. As a team, they have shot 36% on the season, and do not have much of an inside presence that can compete with Texas A&M. Michigan has defended tremendously through rounds one and two and will need to replicate those efforts if they hope to advance. Their ability to guard in the post will be critical if Wagner and company wish to make it out of the Sweet Sixteen.
5 Kentucky v 9 Kansas State
Kentucky comes into this game as the highest remaining seed in the South region. In a region full of upsets, the young Wildcats have persevered and avoided a hiccup. Kansas State has reached this point because of its defense. In the round of 32, they knocked off tournament darlings, 16th seeded UMBC. In that game, the Wildcats held UMBC to just 43 points while only managing 50 of their own. This would appear like a one-sided match-up, but in March there are no givens.
Kentucky is back in the Sweet Sixteen with a team full of freshmen. Don’t worry though, coach John Calipari has already given the full gamut of excuses for this season’s team. The usual lines of: “We’re just now learning how to play”, “We just have a bunch of kids”, and recently “We are in the toughest bracket”. I bet about 300 other D1 coaches wish they were as downtrodden as John Calipari. With this team of “infants”, Kentucky has begun to peak at the right time. They have won 9 of 10, and look to continue their winning way against Kansas State. Kentucky is led by freshmen Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In this meeting, Kentucky will have a serious advantage in size, length, and athleticism. They will be the favorite heading into this one, but they cannot come out flat and expect Kansas State to roll over.
Realistically, Kansas State’s best shot to win is dependent on the health of big man Dean Wade. The 6’10 forward was a 1st Team All-Big 12 selection who averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds this season. At the moment, I believe Wade will play. Even if he is playing at 70 percent, his presence in the lineup is necessary if Kansas State wants to win this game. The Wildcats’ ability to defend Kentucky’s long, athletic forwards will be the key in this one. On top of Wade, Kansas State needs production from high-scoring guard Barry Brown and blossoming small forward Xavier Sneed. Another important factor in March is depth. Whichever team can get the most out of their 3rd, 4th, or 5th options will generally be the team who comes out on top. If Kansas State manages to get production outside of their top 3 options, then Kentucky may be the next team on upset watch.
4 Gonzaga v 9 Florida State
Gonzaga is back in the Sweet Sixteen a year after falling to North Carolina in the national championship. They will meet a Florida State team coming off an improbable victory over a tournament favorite, 1 seed Xavier. This will be a match-up of teams who are willing and able to play a multitude of styles. Gonzaga may be the better team on paper, but coach Leonard Hamilton has his Seminoles playing their best basketball at the right time.
Gonzaga managed to hold on in the previous round against Keita Bates-Diop and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Bates-Diop scored 28, but it was not enough as Gonzaga teammates Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura chipped in 28 and 25 respectively. The Bulldogs once again bring a versatile and experienced lineup into the NCAA Tournament. Six players average at least 9 points per game, and as a team, Gonzaga averages 84 points per contest. This balanced scoring makes it tough on opponents when game planning who to stop on this team. I expect Gonzaga to force Florida State’s big men to guard their more athletic forwards on the perimeter. This would take advantage of their big guys’ strengths while also opening the floor for talented guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell.
I expect Florida State to push the pace and test Gonzaga’s depth in this game. The Seminoles consistently play 10 guys 10 or more minutes each game. However, the more traditional Bulldogs only roll out 7 guys who play that much. Their depth along with aggressive ball pressure will be the major keys for Florida State if they hope to advance out of the Sweet Sixteen. Florida State has the size to disrupt Gonzaga’s bigs down low. They also have very lengthy guards who all can defend at a high level. Between their superior size and length, I expect Florida State to make things very difficult for the Bulldogs offensively in this matchup. I could also see Gonzaga struggling to guard big perimeter players like Trent Forrest, M.J. Walker, Terance Mann, and Braian Angola-Rodas. Gonzaga will be favored and has the tournament experience, but don’t count out this Florida State squad. The Seminoles have pulled off one upset so far, and I predict they will be hungry for another.